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The 5 Stages of Meditation Unpacked

In this article we run through the stages of meditation development and the states of consciousness underlying them.

Ken Wilber‘s AQAL model, drawn from maps from dozens of meditative traditions East and West, helps us better understand the stages of meditation and meditative growth. This process is grounded in the basic states of human consciousness, which include waking, dreaming, psychedelic experiences, out-of-body experiences, altered states, and more.

We experience states of consciousness from each of the five major categories every day but are often not aware of doing so. It usually takes significant training in each state for us to consciously experience them on a regular basis.

So I’m going to explain these fundamental states of consciousness and outline their relation to meditative growth. I’ll look at plenty of examples to bring the theory into practice and help you identify these states of consciousness for yourself.

Ken Wilber And The Major States Of Consciousness

Each state is a unique way of experiencing your body, your mind and all the phenomena you are aware of. Each higher state not only recontexualises the previous one, it reveals new phenomena and insights, all the way to life-changing realisations about life and our place in it. It’s no coincidence that psychedelic therapy, which takes people beyond their habitual state, is gaining traction.

The average person experiences all the major states of consciousness every day. As we work, cook and commute, we typically experience one state. As we dream, we experience another. When we’re in dreamless sleep, another. And perhaps we have the occasional peak experience of a state beyond that. These are but tastes, subsections of the major states of consciousness, which underlie the stages of meditation.

Throughout their lifetime, the average person barely has any conscious experiences of the highest states. We definitely don’t learn how to train higher states in school.

Another complication is that experiences of higher states are often ineffable. Their power pushes us to attempt to share them with others, but we find that language limits us and prevents us from adequately describing them. So humans have resorted to poetry and metaphor – useful for those who have had the experience; mind-boggling to those who haven’t.

We experience states directly, in the first-person. If another person hasn’t, they won’t grasp the essence of the experience or the state. So try as you might to convince people of your experience of Infinity, Oneness, The Great Perfection, you’ll likely fail.

But shamans from millennia ago knew of states beyond our ordinary waking consciousness. Religions East and West also list four to five basic natural states of consciousness. They also see the meditative path as a journey to opening up conscious contact with them.

Ken Wilber quote on universality of spirituality

We can actively train ourselves in each of the major states of consciousness, and we’ll look at the training for each when we cover the five stages of meditation in detail. Common methods for general state training are meditation and contemplation.

This theoretical framework helps us better understand Enlightenment or Awakening and suggest we should see it as a process, rather than as an on-off switch. In fact, all forms of spirituality that track practictioners’ growth along the meditative path hit on the major stages of meditation. Despite the wide cultural variability among the maps from the major traditions, they describe the same journey. Look out for them acting behind the scenes in spirituality and human life at large.

Though they are universal, the West largely ignores these major states and the millennia-old techniques for developing them.

Check out my video introducing the AQAL framework, including the 5 major states.

Properties Of Major States Described By Ken Wilber

Let’s look in more depth at these states and how they relate to spiritual growth. There are five key properties to states:

  1. The five major states of consciousness are hierarchically ordered. Each higher state is more conscious: it allows us greater insight, greater freedom and a higher context.
  2. In the spiritual traditions, the five fundamental states are stages in the process of us going from Ignorance to full spiritual Enlightenment. At each higher stage, we are closer to Enlightenment.
  3. While all five states are always present, each of us habitually identify with a certain state, usually the Waking state. Over the course of spiritual practice, we identify with higher and higher states. Peak experiences beyond our current habitual state are common, but few people permanently embody higher states without serious practice.
  4. Each state gives us a unique perspective on the world.
  5. These states are anchored in biology and the human brain.

5 Stages of Meditation

Great, now let’s look at the five major stages of meditation themselves. I highly recommend you re-read the previous two sections after discovering what the five states are.

Stages of Meditation: 1. Gross

First up is the Waking state, also known as the Gross state, the state that most people are habitually identified with. It’s the state we need for operating in the physical, material world. Indeed, it’s the only one many consider to be real or true. From the perspective accompanying this state, phenomena such as dreams, out-of-body experiences and profound spiritual insights are no more than hallucinations caused by abnormal neuron stimulations.

Beta waves – high-frequency brain waves – are the brain’s signature for this Waking state.

In the Waking state, we’re exclusively identified with the physical body, the rambling mind and our emotions: “I’m hungry,” “I’m sad,” “I’m tired”. Buddhists use the term “Monkey Mind” to describe the chaotic mental chatter from this level – we’re lost in the past and future, worries, dreams, regrets, thought patterns, catchy tunes and crazed monologues. Observe your own mind carefully. You’ll find all it’s concerned with is the physical world and all the drama that being a self entails.

The monkey mind, along with our emotions and physical body sensations, create the sense of a separate person – something behind the eyes that is experiencing everything going on around it. Living life solely at the Waking state leaves us open to torment, pain and suffering, a sense of never being fulfilled, an ever-present sense that something is wrong, all of which is reflected in our treatment of others. Buddhists call this the Wheel of Suffering.

Right now, realise that you are reading this sentence. There is the screen and the words on it, the room, and your body. But where are “you” in all this? If you’re like most people, it will feel like you are behind your eyes. It feels like you are on one side of your face, and the screen is on the other. Get in touch with the sense that there is a brick wall separating you from the rest of the world. This is the Separate Self: your sense of self at the Waking state.

So yes, what you conventionally think of as You is really a contraction in your field of awareness. And the monkey mind makes sure you’re constantly distracted so that you don’t begin to question its games and trickery.

The Gross state of human consciousness

But it’s not the only state we experience. We can deliberately train ourselves to consciously contact higher states and transcend the Separate Self.

Stages of Meditation: 2. Subtle

The next realm is the Subtle. This state is not ego-free, but it does account for the higher aspects of our conventional mind.

After some experience with meditation, our sense of self expands from the Waking self into the Subtle self. The monkey mind calms down, making way for deeper insights, intuitions, wisdom and loving-kindness. You may experience spells of profound mental quiet and experience less suffering and torment, a sense that past and future are but a dream.

An intuition comes that you are not who you always believed yourself to be, that the whirlwind of your thoughts, emotions and body sensations were creating a sense of identity out of thin air: “I am not who I thought I was.”

Look at a photograph of yourself or find a mirror and ponder your reflection. Who are you really? Are you really lodged in behind the eyes somewhere? Perhaps that’s no more than a lie spun by the Separate Self.

This state also includes phenomena such as spiritual visions. Alpha and Theta waves are the brain’s signature for this state.

A lot of self-help gurus operate from the Subtle realm: they give tips for how to listen to your deepest desires and intuitions, free yourself from the torment of your mind, deeply process your emotions, and be more embodied.

Interestingly, while Wilber uses “ego” to describe the Waking self-sense, he calls the Subtle self-sense the “soul”.

The Subtle state of human consciousness

Stages of Meditation: 3. Causal

I like to think of Causal as a waystation between our conventional human self and the awareness of Nothingness and the Divine.

As we further identify with the Causal, our attachment to the Gross body-mind weakens, and Subtle features, such as intuition, insight, connection and bliss, increase. Mental calm becomes more constant, as we would expect.

The Causal is home to the subtlest objects we can be aware of: subtle sounds, lights and shapes that appear in our consciousness.

I often have what I believe to be a Causal experience when I’m falling asleep. As I’m transitioning out of Waking consciousness, I find myself falling through an endless tunnel, with very subtle lights pouring out from it. This is usually accompanied by profound mental quiet.

A common example of a Causal state is deep sleep. Delta waves are the brain’s signature for this state.

a pure endless abyss, out of which the subtlest of the sublest of forms seem to emerge—subtle geometric forms, subtle sounds, audible illuminations, the very matrix of space-time itself, colored forms

Ken Wilber on the Causal state
The Causal state of human consciousness

Stages of Meditation: 4. Witness

If you’ve been around the spiritual block, these descriptions of the Witness state will sound familiar. Spiritual teachers often teach realisation of the Witness state.

The Witness state is home to the realisation of Emptiness and Nothingness: the pure, featureless awareness that grounds everything we experience in the senses. It has no colour, no shape, no sides, no boundaries, no time, no inside and outside. Instead, it effortlessly Witnesses all of these features.

This awareness is radically free of the Waking, Subtle and Causal states. Typical descriptions of this state are “I’m not my body”, “I’m not my mind”, “I’m not my emotions”, “I’m way beyond all of them”.

In identifying with the Witness, we can sit on the bank of the river and watch all our emotions, thoughts, body sensations and our sense of separation arise, play out and disappear. We remain, unshaken, grounded in this pure Seer.

This Seer can’t be seen. It is what sees everything that can be seen.

The Witness state of human consciousness

5. Non-dual

And now we arrive to the highest state yet to be discovered.

At non-duality, there is no sense of a separate Seer witnessing thoughts, emotions and sensations. That Seer collapses into the flow of our senses. We’re no longer on the bank of the river – we’re in the river. We realise we are not separate from anything in our awareness.

Instead, everything you are aware of is you. You look into the eyes of your partner and see yourself, gaze into the sky and taste yourself. You think back to time immemorial and recognise yourself. A distant star comes into view, and you feel yourself in that star.

There is both the radical freedom from the Witness stage and a Single Taste of not being separate from anything. We know that we are inseparable from all humans, animals, buildings, furniture, all colours, all time and all forms we have perceived or ever will perceive.

The Non-dual state of human consciousness

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